For as long as I can remember — which now goes back nearly four decades — market research has consistently found that consumers do not feel confident about their abilities to buy fish or prepare it at home.
That is a serious problem for our industry, because it means people consume less fish than they would otherwise. But it is also a problem that provides opportunities.
Compared to other protein foods — beef, pork, poultry, sheep — fish are complicated. Consumers typically don’t much care what kind of cow their hamburger comes from, what kind of pig their pork chop comes from, what kind of chicken their hot wings come from, or what kind of sheep their lamb roast comes from. In contrast, they do care a lot about the kind of fish they eat.
Beef, pork, poultry, lamb and mutton all come from domesticated farm animals. Over hundreds of years, those animals have been bred and raised to provide very consistent products and the products are readily available year-round in fresh, frozen and other forms.
In recent years, the same model has been used in aquaculture to provide fish to world markets. But fish farmers have also been very selective about which species they choose to farm, so aquaculture currently provides only a limited range of species and products.
The capture fishery is much more complex, providing products to world markets from many different species that are broadly categorized into groundfish, pelagic species and shellfish.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) gathers data related to 1,680 marine species harvested globally and issues annual reports of the catches. Even more species are harvested from freshwater rivers and lakes. In Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) issues annual reports of catches of 36 major species or groups, including 12 groundfish, 11 pelagic and 13 shellfish species, as well as groups of miscellaneous species within each of those categories labelled as “Other.”
These different species have different levels of abundance, seasonal availability, physical characteristics and market appeal — and they sell for different prices. Some species are similar to others, which allows substitution — and sometimes fraudulent marketing practices — but others are more distinctive and not as easily substituted or misrepresented.
Historically, people preferred to eat species they were familiar with — i.e. fish harvested in the vicinity of where they lived and/or had long been part of their traditional diets. That has been changing in recent years, as new and different species have been harvested and introduced to world markets — especially the markets in the United States, Europe and Asia that we depend on.
Because of this diversity, it is reasonable to say that the overall market for fish and seafood is really an aggregation of many niche markets, with the niches defined by species, geography, use and time.
For our industry, that requires making products available to the right customers in the right forms at the right places, times and prices.
Somehow, consumers are expected to make choices from the broad array of fish and seafood products offered to them. But they find making those choices difficult. And it’s not just because the products are fish.
Consumers find it difficult to make choices any time they have a large number of products to choose from, because they must weigh the pros and cons of the different offerings and reach a conclusion about which one best suits their needs.
These days, choosing food products is even more complicated, because choices are no longer just about satisfying hunger or selecting the product with the best taste. Consumers’ choices often reflect concerns about nutritional value, health benefits, environmental impacts and sustainability.
An article in Forbes magazine in 2015 said, “It is well documented that choice does not make us happier but instead accomplishes the opposite, because it diminishes our sense of certainty. This applies to store shelves perhaps more regularly than anywhere.” The article went on to discuss how Walmart was reducing the number of products it offered within a category, to make selection easier for consumers.
Consumers are hesitant about buying fish, because most don’t understand the characteristics of the different species, they feel they can’t properly assess quality and they don’t feel confident in their own abilities to prepare fish at home and use them to create a nice meal.
In some countries, including the United States and Canada, consumers are also wary of finding bones in fish, so they prefer boneless products, but aren’t necessarily confident the products they buy will be boneless. If one person in a household doesn’t want to eat fish, it usually means no one eats fish.
For all these reasons, a high proportion of fish products are sold through restaurants, rather than through food stores for home consumption. Consumers have more confidence that the food professionals who operate the restaurants are able to buy fish, assess quality and turn them into an enjoyable meal. In a restaurant, each person can choose from a menu based on their own preferences, so one person in a group may choose fish, while others make different choices.
Because consumers find fish complicated, it creates opportunities to serve them better by simplifying the choices they have to make. Essentially, that is what they do in restaurants. And it is what companies engaged in secondary processing do, as well, when they add coatings or sauces and provide cooking instructions.
In other industries, some companies have developed distinctive brands to give consumers confidence in their products. A brand is not just a logo or a name on a box. A brand that means something carries a reputation with it. But a reputation can only be built over time, through providing exactly what the brand is intended to represent — distinctive products and consistent quality.
In other words, a brand conveys information and assures consumers the product will satisfy their needs, giving them confidence in what they are buying. It conveys a message about the product — that the product is different from what others are offering and is consistent in quality. And it must be based on something you are better at doing than competitors are.
Very few companies have been able to establish such brands in marketing fish and seafood.
According to John Sackton, a well-known analyst of markets for fish products, “Consumer perceptions of seafood — both positive and negative — depend heavily on the origin of the product. This is because the particular fish stocks, management and harvesting and processing all depend on a geographic area.”
Iceland and Alaska have been especially effective at building their geographic brands. Iceland, in particular, has long been known for producing distinctive, high-quality products that attract higher prices than those obtained by their competitors for similar products.
In recent years, Maine has also made a considerable effort to distinguish “Maine” lobster from other lobsters.
Unfortunately for us, Canadian fish products have long had a reputation for being inconsistent in quality. Although we produce some very high-quality products, we confuse buyers and consumers, because we don’t do it consistently. We are inconsistent mainly because some people are less diligent than others in their attention to quality. Too many people take the view “that’s good enough,” when it really isn’t.
For consumers, the inconsistency means they don’t always know what to expect when they make a purchase. They aren’t confident they will get what they want. And that reduces their willingness to buy and what they are willing to pay.
As these examples show, we can simplify consumers’ choices by providing information, along with our products. For example, we can explain the characteristics of the different species we sell, tell them where and how the fish were caught, provide assurance about quality and sustainability and give them tips about preparing the fish and cooking it at home.
In doing so, we can build a reputation that can help us attract more customers and obtain better prices for our products.
It’s not a difficult thing to do.
But it requires thinking about what consumers really need. And the market research has been telling us for a long time that they need help, not just fish. If all we are doing is providing fish, we are not really giving consumers what they need.
When we catch fish, we rarely think about who will eventually consume them, the form in which they will be consumed, or the circumstances that will lead to the choice to consume them. But we should, because there are things we can do to simplify consumers’ choices.
The first and most important, is to pay better attention to quality. If consumers had greater confidence in the quality of what they are offered, they would be more inclined to buy. Higher quality also creates more possibilities for processing fish into marketable products and for selling them to consumers. And consistently high quality attracts better prices.
When we process fish, we add value to them, by making them easier for consumers to prepare at home. They don’t have to understand how to butcher a crab, fillet a cod, or peel a shrimp and they also don’t have to worry about finding bones.
But just putting the product in a box doesn’t convey that message. We should be taking advantage of the opportunity to use the package to provide them with the information they need to understand what they are buying and how to prepare and cook it.
In marketing our products, we should bear in mind something said by Jay Levinson, an American author and marketing guru: “In order to sell a product or a service, a company must establish a relationship with the consumer. It must build trust and rapport. It must understand the customer’s needs and it must provide a product that delivers the promised benefits.”
For fish and seafood, we can do that by making consumers’ decisions simpler.